The pursuit of “busyness” is all-encompassing, it is everywhere and we are all perpetuating and complaining about it at the same time.
I am sitting in a beautiful fisherman’s cottage in a sleepy village on the coast of Vietnam. The rain has started to pour, simultaneously cooling the air and scuppering our plans for the next couple of hours and so… we are forced to relax.
Instead of piling into a taxi and heading into Hoi An, the beautiful and bustling nearby town to do all the things we think we are supposed to do on holiday – sightseeing, shopping, having cultural experiences, dragging our children and ourselves around making the most of being on holiday – we do nothing.
Or do we? What, exactly is nothing?
This is what “nothing” looks like at this exact moment:
My wife finds the time to read.
My Mum enjoys the relaxing act of sweeping sand off the verandah.
My children play and make up stories.
But, why do we only allow ourselves to relax into doing these things when the rain prevents us from going somewhere else? Because we have become conditioned into “busyness” – the cult of activity and the sense of guilt or fear-of-missing-out that characterizes the modern existence.
This is true in education too. We have allowed learning to be described as “activity” and we strive to keep students busy all day and every day. We have also allowed a fear of missing out to dictate what must be learned, and when, in order to make sure everything gets “covered”. The concept of relaxation, and so – inevitably – the ability to choose to do things that only relaxation really allows, is almost entirely absent from schools.
I wonder what would happen if a school set out – with true intent – to create a sense of relaxation, to replace “busyness” and fragmentation with long periods of time during which teachers and students could relax into simple, deep and meaningful pursuits, to value what happens in those circumstances rather than panicking about what is not happening…
Header image from http://www.boundless.org/~/media/Images/article/rel-13-good-busyness.ashx
Allowing for student choice is a vital element in a modern education. Good teachers know this.
However, it is possible to go too far and allow for too much student choice – it places the focus on width rather than depth. It can rapidly devalue the power of the teacher as the person who guides students deeper with their learning through informed choice and decision-making, the person who has high expectations for their students.
Let’s start looking at this in an early years context. Many early years teachers claim that children should just be free to play and choose to do whatever they like, whenever they like. They like to call this “learning through play” and they get upset when anybody suggests that they design learning experiences for the children and have any sort of expectation that children engage with it. So, in essence, this approach suggests that “learning through play” is the freedom to choose from a wide variety of activities. Children may wander from one thing to another, perhaps rarely or never engaging with anything to any depth… or being expected to.
Now let’s fast-forward a few years. Surely we are hoping to bring up young people who are capable of giving their full attention, their curiosity and their interest to things. To do so, they will need to learn how to engage with things fully, the process involved in taking your learning beneath the surface. This is the type of learning that results in people who are experts, who are in their “element”, who achieve that state of flow, who are fulfilled and who have been able to develop their talents, passions and interests fully.
This all needs to be learned, over a period of many years.
A powerful early years education lies in the hands of early years educators who understand that there is a massive difference between “learning to play” and “learning through play”. Freedom of choice to roam from one activity to another is really “learning to play”. Engaging with ideas and concepts, coming to new understandings through a series of purposeful experiences – yes, planned for by teachers – that feel like playing are “learning through play”.
Young children are capable of going to great depth with their natural tendencies for curiosity, puzzlement, experimentation, trial and error, repeating, observing and risk-taking. The only thing holding them back, all too often, is the attitude of the adult who believes they are not.
With older students, say 10 and 11 year-olds, the teacher’s understanding of how much student choice to allow for continues to be very important. Of course, have a “student-choice mindset” in that you are looking for frequent opportunities to create the conditions for it. However, don’t allow it to become so dominant that it dilutes learning by limiting opportunities for students to engage with things to real depth. Allow choice because it gives you more of a chance that students will be able to settle on things that really interest them, but then insist on – and guide them towards – a commitment to depth.
Frequently, when teachers are disappointed by what their students have produced, they will shift the blame back to them and say “well… that’s what they chose”. Or, they shift the blame to the new pedagogy they are being expected to facilitate and say “well… we’re supposed to let them choose”. The fact of the matter is you – the teacher – allowed them to make that choice and opted not to get involved, to intervene, to guide… to teach!
This has been a very hard blog posting to write because its difficult to explain this simply and, no doubt, I have failed to do so! I will continue to ponder it and try to find ways to capture it… in the meantime, please help me out by making some comments!
It’s that time of year in primary schools again – the time for mixing up the classes and making new ones for next year. I have some thoughts about this.
My first thought is that mixing the classes up every year should not be the default. This is particularly true in international schools where students have very little continuity in their lives anyway. Friends are constantly coming and going, being made and lost. These children, generally, have little bond with their extended families – cousins and so on. Their little lives are in a constant state of flux. In a way, our schools owe it to them to provide a little bit of continuity. Instead, we pull the rug from under their feet and force them to go through the painstaking process of making friends all over again. Even as we speak, my daughter is being separated from her closest friends – for the third year in a row. Just doesn’t seem right, really, does it?
My second thought is an indicator of a bigger problem – friendship within and across classes. Whether we say it is a major factor in the creation of classes or not, to our students the issue of which class their friends are in is HUGE. Each year, we see close friendships break down when students are placed in separate classes. After a while, new friendships are formed with students in the same class. The fact of the matter is – being in the same class seems to be the key factor in the sustainability of friendships in schools. This is an indicator of some very serious problems:
- Classes become silos in which students have few opportunities to interact with and learn with students from other classes.
- Play opportunities may be too rare, infrequent and brief to allow for those times to create the conditions for rich friendships beyond just the ones that exist in the classroom.
- Our students’ lives outside of school clearly become equally scheduled and compartmentalized as “play-dates” (God, I hate that term) are based more and more on students who are in the same class and who parents deem to be acceptable friends.
If schools are going to grow beyond their current state – the need for which so many of us are in agreement about – we need to take a long, hard look at this class-creating habit we have developed. It may be way more damaging and counter-productive than we think.
We also need to look at what our timetables say about how much we value play and the social connections and relationships that could be evolving in so many rich ways if we allow more time.
Perhaps we also need to work with parents in order to attempt to break down this “play-date” culture which converts what should be healthy, spontaneous play with whoever happens to be around to adult-manipulated, scheduled “dates” with carefully selected children.
What does your school do?
Is there an approach that you feel is right?